A History of the Piano

There is no instrument more versatile than the piano. It has a range broader than any other instrument, it is one of the most complex, and it is certainly the most widely played.

Another aspect of its versatility is the vastly diverse styles of playing the piano. Some composers, for example, preferred to utilize it as a percussion-like instrument, while other pieces were composed particularly for other effects, such as long sweeping cadences evoking the quality of a harp, or sections mimicking a bell. The piano’s history is a long one, involving the effort of dozens of people and numerous improvements and additions through the years.

Let’s begin with an overview of the piano.

The piano was “invented”, if you will, in 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori. I write “invented” because there were many forerunners to the piano, and we’ll cover them later in this post.

Cristofori was an Italian maker of musical instruments. He was employed by Prince Ferdinando de Medici in 1688 to care for Ferdinando’s instruments, and possibly to work on inventing a new musical instrument. However, even before 1700, Cristofori had invented two new keyboard instruments. The first was the spinettone (Italian for “big spinet”), which was a large harpsichord with stronger sound. The other invention was the oval spinet, similar to a harpsichord, but with the strings placed in an oval shape so the longest strings are in the middle.

What we know as the piano originally had several names. Cristofori preferred to call it an “arpicembalo”, which literally means “harp-harpsichord”, but later it was termed a “pianoforte” or “forte-piano”, due to its capabilities to play both softly and loudly. It was later truncated further to just the piano.

Besides inventing, Cristofori was a master at building instruments familiar to that time, and had a thorough knowledge of their workings. He not only used this when creating the piano, but also improved the instrument with great inventiveness over time, and nearly all of the features of his “arpicembalo” are present in today’s pianos.

Let’s run through the other similar instruments and how they differ from the piano.

The Organ

The organ is the oldest keyboard instrument, dating from about the 3rd century BC. There were of course predecessors to the instrument—there always are—but it is much older than the harpsichord or clavichord.

The organ uses wind moving through pipes to produce sound. It has one or more keyboards, called manuals, played by the hands, and there is also a pedalboard played by the feet. The smallest pipe organs have one manual, and the largest may have seven. The organ is usually not capable of creating dynamics, as pressing a key only turns the sound on, but some divisions of the keyboard may be enclosed in a swell box, which allows the dynamics to be controlled by shutters. Changing the amount of wind moving through the pipes would also change almost everything about the desired note, including the pitch and tone quality, so the swell box was created instead; by slowly opening or closing its shutters, a crescendo or diminuendo may be obtained.

Before the Baroque period (1600-1750), most music was not written particularly for one keyboard or another. But when the Baroque period came along, the organ began its “golden age”. The organ began to develop, with builders adding varied tonal colors and better mechanical key action. J. S. Bach wrote preludes and fugues specifically for the organ, and near the end of the Baroque period, George Frideric Handel composed the first organ concertos.

The Harpsichord

The harpsichord was invented a little before 1400. Its tones are produced by plucking a string with a quill, creating a thin and “nasal” pitch. Its obvious drawback is that of dynamic contrast – the tone is one volume, and the player’s touch on the keys produces very little difference. There is an exception to this, however. Some harpsichords have a mechanism that, when set up, can increase the volume. If a player uses this mechanism, the number of strings that will be plucked when a key is played increases, and the sound is stronger. However, this must be manually set up before the player performs, and when the volume is set, it cannot be altered while playing.

It might be argued that it’s more difficult to play on the harpsichord than the piano, because of its lack of dynamics. One must use subtle articulation and timing to emulate expressiveness. Though it may be more difficult to play, however, it can’t be denied that the new element of dynamics is extremely powerful when used with articulation and timing – and when three pedals are added to change the tone colors further, the possibilities are endless. Another essential element is, of course, the length of the notes. Because of the hammer action in a piano as opposed to a plucking action in a harpsichord, a piano’s tones can last for much longer than a harpsichord’s.

The Clavichord

The clavichord, invented in the early 1500s, was the only instrument until the piano that allowed control over volume of the tones. However, it was mainly used as a practice instrument, as it wasn’t loud enough for large performances.

The clavichord’s sound is produced by a small blade called a tangent striking brass or iron strings. This tangent, positioned beneath the string it sounds, does not rebound from the string as in a piano; instead, it stays in contact with the string for as long as the key is pressed. This leaves much room for expressive power for the player, because he is in full control of the duration and volume of each and every note. It is for this reason that the clavichord gained itself the title of the most intimate of keyboard instruments.

Fretted Clavichords

Because the string vibrates from the bridge only as far as the tangent, multiple keys with multiple tangents may be assigned to the same pair of strings. By positioning the tangent in a different place along the string, a different pitch can be created. A clavichord strung with multiple notes sharing a pair of strings this way is called a fretted clavichord.

Unfretted clavichords are like the piano, with a different pair of strings for every note.
Since only one note can sound on a particular string at one time, notes rarely heard together (such as C and C#) share a string on a fretted clavichord. Most clavichords are double- or triple-fretted (two or three pitches assigned to one pair of strings), but early clavichords were triple- or even quadruple-fretted. And, yes, in case you’re wondering, there is such a thing as an instrument with only one string for every pitch on the keyboard; it’s called a “keyed monochord”. On a keyed monochord, all the tangents are positioned at a different place on the string, so each tangent strikes a different pitch.

Now let’s inspect the differences between Cristofori’s arpicembalo and the modern piano.

The piano’s key action as we know it today is not Cristofori’s exact design, but rather a distant relative of it, the result of many years’ improvements. A little after Cristofori’s death, Johann Stein built a piano with a new kind of action. The hammer head was actually in contact with its key, and upon pressing that key, the head would be propelled up towards the string. This type of action was called Viennese action, and famous musicians such as Schubert, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven played on these Viennese pianos.

Soon after the Viennese action was invented, the English action of the 1770s came along. It combined the strength of Cristofori’s action with the new, more rapid action of the Viennese piano. Later, French builders in the 19th century expanded the English version to add the repetition lever, which facilitated repeating notes. Eventually the English piano was the leading type, and that basic action is what we use today.

Surprisingly, the only pedal Cristofori ever created was the soft pedal, and it was a very distant relative of the mechanism of modern soft pedals. It was hand-operated, a knob on the side of the keyboard. When activated, the whole keyboard would be shifted to the right, and thereby made any depressed key strike only one string instead of two. Later, this mechanism was put into the form of a knee lever, such as Mozart used. Now it exists as a pedal in grand pianos today. It is because of this shift of the keyboard that the “soft” pedal should more correctly be termed the una corda pedal (or “one string” in Italian). In upright pianos, however, it could be called the “half-blow” pedal, because it doesn’t shift the action to the right; it moves the hammers closer to the strings so that it won’t sound so loudly.

There are two other pedals, the sostenuto and the damper pedal, on the modern piano. The damper pedal raises all the dampers off the strings so that they keep vibrating even after a key on the keyboard has been released. By letting the notes continue to vibrate, the damper pedal allows the player to play phrases in a legato style that would otherwise be impossible. The damper pedal was invented by Gottfried Silbermann, the famous organ builder.

The sostenuto pedal is based on the damper pedal. When it is pressed down, the notes that are depressed at that time are sustained, while all the other notes remain unaffected. This is convenient when a left hand chord precedes staccato notes. While the chord must be sustained throughout the measure, the staccato notes must be untainted. The sostenuto pedal was invented by the French in the 1800s, and though it was indifferently received at first, it eventually made its way to Steinway grands and high-end uprights.

The piano has expanded over time. It grew from Cristofori’s original 4 octaves to about 5 octaves in Mozart’s time to roughly 6 octaves in Beethoven’s time to finally 7 1/3 octaves (88 keys) on a typical piano today. However, there was a piano made in 1900—the Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand—that boasts 97 keys, which is a full 8 octaves. Garrick Ohlsson dubbed this Imperial Grand the “Rolls-Royce of pianos”. Of course, these extra 11 keys aren’t much use, as the notes at the edge of just the 88-key piano begin to be more noise than music, but they add an extra level of spectacular-ness to the instrument.

Of course, one main difference between old pianos and modern pianos which many of us don’t think about is the coloring of the keys. Today, almost all pianos have white natural keys and black accidental keys. Cristofori’s pianos, on the other hand, had black natural keys and white accidental keys. Mozart composed his concertos and sonatas for this type of piano, and sometimes replicas are used for authentic performances of his music.

Besides those of key action, pedals, and keyboard size and coloring, there are a few other main differences between the arpicembalo and piano. An iron frame was eventually invented to allow for thicker strings, which in turn allows for greater volume. Also, the number of strings the hammer hits was increased from two to three, though the very lowest bass notes have one or two.

But what about the newest types of pianos? Well…

~ How would you like a concave piano, forming a semi-circle around you?
~ The world’s smallest piano is almost 10 inches wide and 7 inches tall.
~ There are digital dinner table pianos, where all you have to do is lift the table top and the keyboard is below!
~ And how about a fully transparent piano? A lot of brands are manufacturing them these days.
~ There are chrome pianos, which reflect everything around them.
~ Try a piano with no black keys!

People are endlessly inventive.

Well, that’s the history of the piano, in which we’ve also discussed the comparisons of the piano to similar instruments, how it differs from the modern piano, and how it has evolved from Cristofori’s original “arpicembalo” to the spectacular piano of our times.

Thanks for reading!

– Maggie

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